STRIKES (JOURNALISTS’ AND PRINTERS’)
For an industry historically known to prefer conciliation and arbitration, it is ironic that the first known strike in Australian history took place at a newspaper. In 1829, typographers on the Australian walked off the job over a wages claim. In 1840, printers withdrew labour from the Sydney Herald in a dispute over apprentices. The strike weakened the newspaper, leading to its purchase by John Fairfax & Sons.
The Victoria Typographical Association, formed in 1851, led strikes at Melbourne’s Argus (1855) and Age (1858), which failed after management brought in workers from Hobart and England. Meanwhile, in Sydney in 1854, printers struck over wages at the Empire. The proprietor, (Sir) Henry Parkes, took legal action and 13 of the 17 strikers were imprisoned. Parkes imported cheaper workers from India.
After this, the industrial organisation of printers and the use of strike action waned. The next major strike occurred in 1889, when 101 compositors in Brisbane joined a month-long general printing strike that was marred by violence.
With the new century, printers and journalists realised the ramifications of being workers in a capitalist economy. Journalists formed the Australian Journalists’ Association (AJA) in 1910, while the national Printing Industry Employees’ Union of Australia was established in 1915. Both groups retained a preference for conciliation and arbitration.
Yet in 1912, journalists walked off the Perth Daily News for two days over wages parity with Melbourne and Sydney journalists. It was the first known strike by journalists in Australia.
In 1919, journalists on Broken Hill’s Barrier Daily Truth, published by a mining union, were locked out after refusing a management request to work for free because the union had devoted all its funds to striking miners. The labour movement was again involved in a strike in 1925 after the sacking of four Labor Daily journalists, who had formed a union branch at the paper. The dispute prompted a protest march by 350 members of the Labor Council of New South Wales.
Printers struck for five weeks in Perth in 1922, over plans to increase working hours and reduce wages. Two dailies and three weeklies did not publish for the duration of the strike.
The next strike occurred in Sydney in October 1944 after printers at the Sun unsuccessfully sought a 40-hour week. Journalists were drawn in when Fairfax sent copy to other newspapers for inclusion in a composite paper. Journalists refused to work on the composite and were dismissed or suspended. The dispute lasted 13 days, during which striking printers and locked out journalists united to produce a strike paper, the News, out of the Communist Party printery. Nine editions of the News were published with daily sales of 100,000 copies.
In 1947, journalists and printers on opposition papers again resisted management efforts to produce a composite paper when a printers’ dispute escalated, forcing publication of the Sun to be abandoned for two days. In 1955, Daily Mirror printers struck over a new industrial award. The Mirror was not published for 19 days, the Sun for nine days and the Daily Telegraph and the Sydney Morning Herald for six days. There were no Sunday newspapers in Sydney for two weeks. Journalists were brought into the dispute when proprietors, as in 1944, produced a composite paper. Journalists who refused to work on the composite were sacked. This time, three editions of a strike paper, the Clarion, were printed at the Catholic Weekly. It sold up to 170,000 copies daily and made a £3000 profit. The strike ended after a mass meeting of more than 3000 unionists voted to return to work under a no victimisation policy.
While it was printers who initiated the 1944 and 1955 strikes, it was journalists who walked off the job in August 1967 to protest a downgrading of editorial staff. The 16-day strike affected newspapers in Adelaide and Sydney. Although two composite papers were produced, improved technology meant publication of all newspapers was restricted rather than stopped. The Clarion re-emerged for two editions. Support for the strike waned and journalists voted to return to work.
In 1975, the first strike by journalists over editorial independence took place at the Australian, Daily Telegraph and Daily Mirror, owned by News Limited. On 8 December, during the federal election campaign following the Dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government, AJA members held a two-day strike to protest anti-Labor bias. The journalists’ strike followed a strike by printers, protesting anti-Labor editorials. A letter sent to Rupert Murdoch, signed by 75 journalists, claimed the Australian had become a ‘propaganda sheet’. The strike led to a joint communiqué from the AJA and Murdoch, in which Murdoch supported fair and accurate reporting and the AJA Code of Ethics.
The following year, ABC staff—including 120 journalists—staged a 24-hour strike to protest the Broadcasting and Television Amendment Act 1976, which they feared would threaten editorial independence. In 1978, commercial television journalists struck for three days over award changes.
The introduction of computerised visual display terminals (VDTs) in newsrooms prompted a strike in 1980 by 2124 AJA members across Australia. The strike lasted five weeks but no newspapers ceased publication. Issues of the Clarion were produced in each state. The strike ended when nationwide union meetings voted to accept a considerably smaller VDT allowance.
The ability of managements to continue publishing greatly reduced the impact of strike action and, since the 1980 VDT walkout, snap strikes have been used. In 1991, News Limited journalists staged a 24-hour strike over job cuts. In the same year, NSW journalists had to decide between their role as ‘outsiders/observers’ or as trade unionists during a general strike. They voted 772 to 573 to join the strike. The trend to snap strikes continued after the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance took over representation of journalists from 1992. That year, Fairfax journalists struck for 24 hours to protest sackings and ABC journalists staged a 24-hour strike after current affairs reporters were put in charge of news coverage of the US election. In 1994, News Limited printers and journalists held a nationwide strike over new technology and wages. In 1998, strikes were held at Victorian regional newspapers owned by Leader Community Newspapers, to protest the publication of a column by Premier Jeff Kennett.
Journalists were among 5400 ABC staff who walked off the job in 1996 to protest government cuts to public broadcasting. During the 24-hour strike, ABC Radio stations played continuous music, and evening news and current affairs programs were replaced. Two weeks later, evening television news was cancelled at SBS after a snap strike was called over the cuts. In 2004, ABC journalists in Victoria and South Australia joined a one-day strike protesting plans to centralise sports news coverage in Sydney. Two years later, a 24-hour nationwide strike over pay and conditions again disrupted news and current affairs programming.
Since 2000, staff at Fairfax newspapers have been involved in four major strike campaigns. The first, in 2000, followed a deadlocked pay dispute and journalist concerns over falling editorial standards. Journalists held rolling strikes, prompting a lockout by Fairfax management. Continued concerns over staff cuts and quality led to a brief strike in Sydney in 2007. The following year, plans to axe 5 per cent of the workforce prompted a four-day strike and pickets in four cities. In 2011, journalists threatened strike action when Fairfax Media announced it would outsource sub-editing. In 2012, sub-editing staff cuts and plans to relocate production of some regional titles to New Zealand sparked a 36hour walkout by 800 journalists in Melbourne, Canberra, Wollongong, Sydney and Newcastle.
REFs: J. Hagan, Printers and Politics (1966); C.J. Lloyd, Profession: Journalist (1985).
MARGARET VAN HEEKEREN